It’s time once again to play Ring Around the Rosary — Media Edition, and today we land on the Washington Post’s take on Catholicism … or more broadly, the Bible itself. In an analysis published last night about one of the most accomplished women in the federal judiciary, the Post’s team of reporters manages to suss out the same tired story about People of Praise that has been bouncing around media circles for three years. This time, though, they add a twist — that Amy Coney Barrett considered herself a “handmaid” in the organization.
Who wants to tell them? Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners …
Barrett, a federal appellate judge, has disclosed serving on the board of a network of private Christian schools affiliated with the group. The organization, however, has declined to confirm that she is a member. In recent years, it removed from its website editions of a People of Praise magazine — first those that included her name and photograph and then all archives of the magazine itself.
Barrett has had an active role in the organization, as have her parents, according to documents and interviews that help fill out a picture of her involvement with a group that keeps its teachings and gatherings private.
A 2010 People of Praise directory states that she held the title of “handmaid,” a leadership position for women in the community, according to a directory excerpt obtained by The Washington Post.
Also, while in law school, Barrett lived at the South Bend home of People of Praise’s influential co-founder Kevin Ranaghan and his wife, Dorothy, who together helped establish the group’s male-dominated hierarchy and view of gender roles. The group was one of many to grow out of the charismatic Christian movement, which sought a more intense and communal religious experience by embracing such practices as shared living, faith healing and speaking in tongues.
Not only is this a rehash of old news (with one exception), the Washington Post acknowledges it’s a rehash of old news. This all came up in Barrett’s previous confirmation hearing, which led Senate Democrats into the same trap that media seems to be laying for them this time around. This is WaPo’s way of saying that the dogma lived a little too loudly within Barrett for their taste:
Barrett’s ties to the group, which has conservative stances on the role of women in society and other social issues, did not come to light until after she was questioned by senators considering her nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in 2017. Senators are preparing to question her next week over her nomination to the high court.
The only new nugget in this warmed-over hysteria is Barrett’s living arrangements while in law school. Apparently, the thought of a Catholic student at a Catholic school living with charismatic Catholics well over twenty years ago is somehow a novelty which requires comment by national news publications. At least, it warrants that comment if one believes that being a “handmaid” is somehow a subversively submissive act by a woman whose career has soared the heights of the legal profession.
It’s such a dumb argument that Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) has issued not one but two statements pointing out its idiocy. This is the more succinct and recent of the two:
“Catholic believes Catholic stuff, story at eleven. This conspiracy theory that a brilliant jurist and an accomplished lawyer is secretly a subservient woman controlled by her husband’s ‘shadowy organization’ isn’t just stupid — it’s bigoted and sexist.”
This comment from National Review’s Rich Lowry is more humorous but just as pointed:
It’d be great to know the theory of what Amy Coney Barrett would have been able to achieve if she hadn’t been hampered by being a woman in People of Praise —would she be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court already? Secretary General of the U.N.? What?
— Rich Lowry (@RichLowry) October 7, 2020
All due respect to author Margaret Atwood and The Handmaid’s Tale, but Christians and Catholics have a very different view of the term “handmaid,” one that apparently even escapes the WaPo’s religion reporters. It’s modeled on Mary — not on her marriage to Joseph but on her submission to the Lord. It comes straight out of Luke’s Gospel, in the very first chapter:
And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Perhaps this is news to media organizations, but the handmaid concept applies to all Christians, not just the women. We are all called to emulate Mary in her submission to the will of God, so that His work can be accomplished through us. Unfortunately, none of us have ever offered as perfect a “yes” as Mary, which the Catholic Church teaches was possible through Mary’s immaculate conception (which, despite popular understanding, does not refer to Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit).
The role of submission in marriage is a different matter, with a more complicated theology. That teaching comes from epistles written by both Peter and Paul, but both also command husbands to serve their wives as Jesus serves the Church. None of these teachings, it should be pointed out, contain the term “handmaid” at all. The letter to the Ephesians is the most on point to this teaching, which underscores the core teaching of caritas, the self-sacrificing love to which we are all called in Christ. This passage is a typically florid and poetic way of telling spouses to subsume their own interests for the sake of the other, so as to form them both and their families for eternal life in the caritas of the Trinity.
None of these are easy teachings; if they were, we wouldn’t keep failing so badly at living them. However, neither are they particularly esoteric teachings, regardless of how many media outlets omit the Christian context for them. Or worse yet, attempt to splice Atwood’s context in place of that Christian teaching. This WaPo story does all of this, while at the same time boring us with a rehash of the same bad reporting on Barrett and People of Praise that’s been repeated for over three years now. I’m not sure which is the more egregious sin at this point.
Update: Fixed my erroneous use of “Atwell” instead of “Atwood” for the novelist’s name. My apologies for the error.